How to Talk with Your Family About Estate Planning

Mar 10, 2022 | Power of Attorney, Videos, Wills & Trusts

by ACTEC Fellows Jonathan W. Michael and Michaelle D. Rafferty​

Every family situation is unique, so the questions of who, when and how? should I talk to my family about my will, healthcare power of attorney and estate plan can be stressful.  

ACTEC Fellows Jonathan W. Michael and Michaelle M. Rafferty offer communication strategies and recommendations for addressing questions, sharing documents, and giving family members peace of mind.


Jonathan Michael: Hello. My name is Jonathan Michael. I’m an ACTEC Fellow in Chicago and today I’m here with Michaelle Rafferty an ACTEC Fellow in Reno, Nevada. And the topic we’re going to address is how to talk with your family about estate planning and family communication. Welcome Michaelle.

Michaelle Rafferty: Thank you, Johnathan. Thank you for having me.

Jonathan Michael: Of course, so let’s get right into it, Michaelle. When working with estate planning clients do you recommend that they talk with their family about their estate plan?

Michaelle Rafferty: That’s a great question, Jonathan, and it comes up quite often. Yes, is the answer. Family can benefit significantly when you talk to them and share with them that you have completed your plan. It creates some peace and tranquility among your children to know that things are in order, but it also has to be done correctly. So, there are some things to think about when and if you’re going to do this.

Jonathan Michael: What do you generally recommend to your clients with respect to what areas are you going to cover and what other types of issues might you want to address when you talk to clients about this?

Michaelle Rafferty: Well, the first thing to think about is what you’re trying to accomplish when you’re going to talk with your children or family members about your plan. Are you going to actually talk about the details of the plan or just in more general wanting them to know that it’s done and know who to contact when and if that day comes to get copies of the documents? For many clients it’s that they want to actually sit down and talk with her family about the details of the plan or maybe share the actual plan itself.

Jonathan Michael: How about in terms of releasing documents? Do recommend that? Do you not recommend or somewhere in between?

Michaelle Rafferty: This can really vary depending on where the clients are and where they are in their lifespan. When they’re unlikely to change the plan and then this is more at the very end, towards the end of life maybe that’s a good thing. Earlier, it’s likely the plans going to change a lot between the first plan and the last plan of their life and, so, often times that can create expectations if release a plan too early with all of the details when it’s very likely to change. I think you have to step back and also think about what’s in the plan. The type of plan that you have whether you have a lot of bequests and things that are going to go to one person instead of others, it can create friction in the family and especially if there’s things in there that people may not like. It can also put that client in a little bit of a disadvantage when they’re at home and somebody comes to them now that they know what’s in the plan and they don’t like it. So, it can facilitate a lot of information being transferred but it also can create some friction.

Jonathan Michael: So, if the client decides not to share the specific documents of the plan, how do you start a workaround the situation when they say I still want to share with the plan, but maybe not the specific documents. What would you recommend?

Michaelle Rafferty: In that particular case there’s a number of things we can do.   They can share in general who has the plan, where the clients or where the family will go and find the plan when they pass away so they know who to contact and it might not even actually be beyond death it might be in the event of an incapacity. So, perhaps who the lawyer is? Who’s got possession of the documents? Whether they’re in a safe or safe deposit box and how access can be obtained. That information can be helpful, and it might even be helpful if it’s more of a general flow chart or an overview rather than specific details of the plan. It’s not necessarily appropriate in all cases to be sharing the financials but, maybe a general big picture idea of how it’s going to the flow can be helpful. 

Jonathan Michael: How about, along those lines, maybe sharing the names of who the fiduciaries might be- so the trustees, the executors, the agents under power of attorney for healthcare- would that make sense if you’re not providing an actual copy of the plan?

Michaelle Rafferty: That can be very helpful. Again, as long as that’s not likely to change and those individuals are going to be in those positions, certainly that can be helpful. It can also be helpful to give their contact information if it’s not somebody readily known to the family so that they know, again, who to reach out to you at that particular time.

Jonathan Michael: How about, a little earlier you mentioned the concept of a sort of like a family meeting. Do you have any suggestions from your experiences related to what a family meeting might look like and how that might, I guess, how it might proceed?

Michaelle Rafferty: If you’re going to do a family meeting- and these happen more frequently today than ever before- the important thing is to plan ahead for what that meeting is going to look like. You and your attorney need to understand what’s going to be shared, because it is not likely to be an attorney-client privileged meeting. You want to be aware of how much information your attorney is authorized to give so that you’re both on the same page in that regard. And then you want to talk about who’s going to be there, how the presentation’s going to proceed forward. If it’s before the plan has been executed, that might be a different type of meeting than after it’s been executed, and you also want to think about who you’re going to invite to this meeting. Are you going to let in-laws come- the daughter-in-law, the son-in-law- or is it going to be just the children? Who’s present at that time is going to be critical to how that process is going to play out.

Jonathan Michael: It sounds like there’s a lot of planning that goes into preparing for the family meeting.

Michaelle Rafferty: Absolutely, and making sure the family dynamics are appropriate for the type of meeting that you’re going to host will help the success of the process. Every family is different today and we have people spread out all over the country, not to mention the world, so how you’re going to do it is going to be very important for you.

Jonathan Michael: I can imagine. Michaelle, we’ve covered a lot of things today, is there anything you didn’t cover that maybe you’d like to offer some thoughts on?

Michaelle Rafferty: What I would offer at this particular point is to remember that there are a lot of planning opportunities both in the estate planning side and in the family side of this process. Working closely with your counsel, doing as much planning as you can ahead of time as opposed to at the spur of the moment is important and giving yourself the time and focus that you need for this type of a project is going to be critical to the success in the end.

Jonathan Michael: Very good. Well, thank you Michaelle, and thank you to everyone who’s tuned into this. If you’d like more information on this topic or other estate planning related topics there is a series of videos at actec.org and I would encourage you to take a look at that. Thank you.

Michaelle Rafferty: Thank you.


You may also be interested in: